I decided to read a work by Alice Munro purely because she won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year. I came in with modest expectations, since there are many past winners who I'm no admirer of. Sadly, even those were not met.
The book follows Rose, a girl growing up in severe poverty in the small Canadian country town of Hanratty and desiring more. Flo is her hard-working, flawed step-mother, who appears later on, but largely dominates the first third of the book. Each chapter has its own subject and meanders back and forth through time. In general, each new chapter is a chronological step forward.
Early on, when describing the impoverished town of Hanratty, Munro goes for a low-key, philosophical approach. While the writing itself is decent, and there is a high degree of realism, the events themselves are inconsequential and forgettable.
They lack the humor or excitement to make them entertaining. This, despite the tales being filled with violence, sex, and vulgarity. I usually love those three elements myself, so I was mystified at how Munro managed to make them so utterly boring. If anything, that might be her biggest strength as a writer.
At the same time, neither does the first third of the work offer keen insight, so anyone looking for an intellectually stimulating account of small-town life will be disappointed. Frankly, I found a lot of Munro's philosophical musings to be shallow and simplistic.
Once Rose moves out on her own, and Flo is largely forgotten, the book becomes a bit livelier. At the same time, while the enjoyment factor goes up, the realism goes down. For instance, certain philosophical observations seem flat-out wrong; Patrick disliked Clifford without knowing him because Clifford was a violinist; no doubt Clifford disliked Patrick because Patrick worked in a branch of his family's department store. In those days the barriers between people were still strong and reliable, between arty people and business people; between men and women.
Perhaps this was true among the group of Canadian friends Munro had during the period of the 50s and 60s; it certainly wasn't true during that same time in the USSR or the USA, (my birthplace and where I grew up, respectively) based on firsthand accounts.
Moreover, characters and situations go from realistic if exaggerated to buffoonish caricatures.
This is most evident in the description of Rose's husband Patrick and his wealthy family. Take every stereotype about out-of-touch, snobbish, ridiculous rich people you have ever seen in film and television comedies, and it still won't be as absurd as the punching bags Munro puts up. The novel goes out of its way to demean Patrick, making him seem comically inept, pathetic, and insensitive. I have known a lot of rich people, many of whom I dislike. Not one of them is even a fourth as ludicrous as Rose's husband.
Of course, this is by design, since it attempts to justify Rose's many horrible actions towards him and her daughter.
Which brings us to another major problem of the work. While we are meant to view Rose as a flawed and occasionally cruel person, we are nevertheless meant to sympathize with her, and even consider her a fundamentally good, decent individual.
I couldn't do that. In terms of her moral character,she cheats on her husband multiple times. In one instance, she has sex on a park bench while her daughter is playing nearby. She also commits adultery with her best friend's husband, and then justifies it. She cuts herself during her marriage because of supposed emotional anguish, despite starting the fights with her husband.
Then, she has the gall to wonder why, nine years after her divorce, Patrick looks at her with revulsion.
While not quite as nauseating, Rose's taste in friends and ideas makes her seem like a ridiculous idiot. She is drawn to the liberals and pseudo-intellectuals that populated the "thriving" (that's sarcasm, folks) Canadian art scene of the 50s and 60s. She considers them enlightened and just, and her husband Patrick, head of multiple department stores, an idiot for espousing sane, logical, but faintly conservative-sounding rhetoric at a party. I couldn't tell whether Munro was trying to make the endless stream of pompous English professors and hippy housewives Rose finds so cool seem ridiculous, or if that was my own distaste. At any rate, they are still portrayed far better than Patrick's family is.
And of course, in her actual life, Rose can't even follow those values. Munro briefly notes this hypocrisy in parts, but it's never treated as a serious blot on her character. In fact, that's why Munro later has Rose magically becoming a famous and successful actress, through no effort of her own. Rose has zero training or education in acting, and doesn't even have to look for a role without it dropping in her lap. Oh, and did I mention that Rose is not even supposed to be pretty? Well, screw the logic, Rose has to be an independent woman to be sympathetic, goddamn it!
Unfortunately, with me, that failed. I view Rose as both a horrible human being and an eye-rolling idiot. I can't sympathize with that. The Beggar Maid
is well-written, occasionally realistic, and more rarely, even moderately entertaining. (Although never those last two qualities together)
However, long stretches of absolute tedium (despite the vulgar, racy subject matter), an attempt at caricature when Munro had exhausted the initial ideas for the work, and the utterly unsympathetic character of the main protagonist make this a mediocre book at best.
I can't recommend this to anyone except those who want to judge whether the Nobel Committee made another lousy selection this year or not.